Household activities and Aztec conquest
Weaving and cooking were central activities in Aztec households, and in Aztec women’s lives. In this
exercise, you will analyze data to explore how the growth of the Aztec empire affected these activities. Background information
Weaving in Aztec Mexico
Cloth was woven out of two different fibers—cotton and fiber extracted from the maguey cactus.
Maguey fiber was spun more coarsely, using heavier spindle whorls, while cotton was spun finely, using small whorls supported in small bowls. After spinning, this thread would be woven into cloth using a back-strap loom.
Aztec women wove cloth for their family’s use—in the case of commoners, this cloth was most often
made of maguey fiber. They also wove cotton or maguey cloth for tribute to local lords and Aztec rulers. Cloth was also woven for sale at markets.
Archaeologists find two types of spindle whorls at Aztec sites—small ones, weighing less than 10 g. with
diameters of 2-4 mm. and large ones, weighing more than 10 g. with diameters of 6-12 mm. It is fair to assume that the small whorls were used to spin cotton and the large whorls were used to spin maguey.
Cooking in Aztec Mexico
Figure 1 shows an Aztec mother teaching her daughter to cook; in this image we see the key equipment in an Aztec kitchen: a hearth, a grinding stone, a griddle or comal, and an olla or cooking pot. Maize was
first mixed with lime to soften the hulls and make niacin available to human digestion. After soaking, maize was ground and mixed into tortillas, a staple of the Aztec diet.
Tortillas were toasted on the griddle, a labor-intensive process that was nonetheless central to Aztec meals at home and away from home (since tortillas could be carried to the fields or other worksites). Griddles were also used to toast portable provisions for war called pinolli. Griddles, then, were used for
portable dry foods, both staples and special-occasion foods.
Tortillas were supplemented by sauces and stews made from chiles, beans, vegetables, and meats, and by atole, a liquid of boiled maize. Pots were used to prepare these dishes, as well as special, complex dishes like tamales. Pots were used for less portable, but generally less labor-intensive wet foods, both staples and special occasion foods.
Since pots and griddles represent the preparation of different foods that place different constraints on cooks, it is safe to assume that the relative numbers of pots and griddles at a site will reflect the priorities of that community’s cooks.
This exercise is based on data from five Aztec sites: Xico, Huexotla, and Xaltocan in the Valley of Mexico, and Coatlan Viejo and Xochicalco/Coatetelco in the modern state of Morelos, southwest of the Valley of Mexico (see Figure 2). Before Aztec conquest, Xico was an island on Lake Chalco in the heart of the Valley of Mexico’s chinampa agricultural zone, Huexotla was a powerful independent domain located on the fertile piedmont, and Xaltocan was the capital of a powerful polity located in a region of more limited agricultural production. These three communities fell under Aztec rule in the early 1400s, so it is possible to compare Early Aztec (Early Postclassic period, prior to Aztec conquest) and Late Aztec (after Aztec conquest) periods at these sites.
Data from Xochicalco and Coatetelco have been combined here—these two sites were located about 80
km from Tenochtitlan and were occupied before and after Aztec conquest of the Morelos region. Coatlan Viejo, located 90 km from Tenochtitlan, is a Late Aztec site in Morelos. The tables below show some data recovered from these two sites: counts of large and small spindle whorls, ceramic rims, and fragments of pots and griddles, in Early and Late Aztec periods. You will use this data to explore the effects of Aztec conquest on household labor.
Large spindle whorls Small spindle whorls Total ceramic rims
Site Early Aztec Late Aztec Early Aztec Aztec Early Aztec Late Aztec
Huexotla 11 44 10 37 3582 27720
Xaltocan 7 2 6 7 6661 6418
Xico 1 0 5 1 5062 2247
Coatlan Viejo no data 13 no data 119 no data 5408
Coatetelco 3 2 2 12 2402 5006
Site Early Aztec Late Aztec Early Aztec Late Aztec
Huexotla 192 481 579 1518
Xaltocan 758 456 1213 1558
Xico 722 170 467 562
Coatlan Viejo no data 145 no data 139
Coatetelco no data no data no data no data
Steps in your analysis
1. Formulate a hypothesis—how do you think Aztec conquest might affect communities in the Valley of Mexico and Morelos? (you might start by thinking about what the Aztecs might demand or require of community members).
2. Think about how the effects that you hypothesize might be seen in the data—if indeed Aztec
conquest affected communities in the way you hypothesize, what patterns should you see in the data?
3. Analyze the data. The data tables give you raw counts—you can’t just compare counts of large
and small spindle whorls between different sites, because the sample sizes are different. So, you’ll have to standardize the numbers to be able to compare them.
a. For spindle whorl data: counts of rim sherds are often used in archaeology to
standardize counts of other artifacts, since bigger samples will have more sherds and
smaller samples will have fewer. Use the sherd count and the spindle whorl count to
calculate number of spindle whorls per 1000 rim sherds for each site and period (the
frequency of spindle whorls).
Compare these frequencies—does spindle whorl frequency change from Early to Late
Aztec periods? If so, how? Do all sites look the same, or can you observe differences in
how activities at different sites changed? What might these changes mean in terms of
b. For pot and griddle data: the best way to compare relative numbers of pots and griddles
is to calculate the pot-to-griddle ratio. For each site and period, calculate the number of
pots per 100 griddles (the same as calculating pots as a percentage of griddles).
Compare these ratios—does the pot-to-griddle ratio change from Early to Late Aztec
periods? If so, how? Do all sites look the same, or can you observe differences in how
activities at different sites changed? What might these changed mean in terms of
4. How do your answers to Question 3 relate to the hypothesis and expectations you outlined in Questions 1 and 2? Were your expectations met, or not met? What do your findings suggest about the effects of Aztec conquest in different parts of the empire?
5. Write a 2-4 page essay that synthesizes your answers to Questions 1-4 above. Include a chart showing the spindle whorl frequencies and pot-to-griddle ratios you calculated (the chart doesn’t have to show the raw counts, just the numbers you calculated). Make sure you
thoughtfully and precisely answer all the questions above, and make sure your essay is clearly written, well organized, and flows well.
Figure 1. Aztec woman teaching her daughter how to cook
Figure 2. Locations of Aztec sites